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Yo La Tengo - Nuclear War

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Artist: Yo La Tengo

Album: Nuclear War

Label: Matador

Review date: Dec. 11, 2002

Preemptive Strike

Perhaps sensing the serious lack of opposition to the mounting aggression against Iraq, Yo La Tengo entered the studio to record Sun Ra’s strident moral anthem, “Nuclear War.” Originally written as a reaction to the proliferation of nuclear technologies around the globe and the danger incidents like Three Mile Island posed for the future of our planet, “Nuclear War” is remembered now as a timeless litany that attacked the Reagan administration with short, effective phrases that detailed the realities of nuclear annihilation with the most non-linear of verbal outbursts.

Although the nature of the song’s content and the timing of its release would suggest Yo La Tengo’s motives are almost exclusively political, they aren’t; if they were, a somber Ira Kaplan would’ve locked himself in a Hoboken studio with a bottle of Maneshevitz and a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “America.” Granted, it would have proved a more poignant commentary but Yo La Tengo are a little too quirky to deliver their messages wholeheartedly. As is always the case in Hoboken, there’s a slight tinge of humor at work. Conceived in earnest but performed in jest, the Nuclear War EP is Yo La Tengo’s way of weaving an important message into the fabric of their unique brand of dry wit.

The first track on the EP begins with an incredibly adept drum lead that ushers in James McNew’s chant of “nuclear war.” McNew’s introduction is immediately followed by Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley’s synced and deadpan response of “yeahhhhhhhh.” This formula of call and response settles in for the duration of the track as they continue to remain fairly loyal to the original recording. The second song threads a sickly gurgle of synth behind what is essentially McNew’s vocals from the first track. The only difference is that Kaplan and Hubley are briefly replaced by a chorus of eleven children who, in the absence of any real threat of punishment, take full advantage of the rare opportunity to repeat the words “ass” and “motherfucker,” over and over again. Why the kids? Who knows. Whatever the reason, they greatly contribute to the surreal quality of the moment.

With the addition of New York free jazz musicians Susie Ibarra, Roy Campbell Jr, Daniel Carter and Sabir Mateen, the 15 minute third track proves the real homage to Sun Ra. Staccato piano chords, mallet rolls across the head of detuned tympani and chaotic, cartoon-like voices all figure prominently in the mix. The format is tweaked just enough to provide a rest from the hypnotic drudgery that “nuclear war” imparts on the listener.

Mike Ladd’s contribution, the fourth and final track, isn’t bad; it just fails to connect with the spirit of the previous three tracks. After thirty-one minutes of hearing the same song hashed and rehashed, Ladd’s remix just doesn’t have the charisma to charm us into sitting still for another six minutes.

Alas, as the EP draws to a close so does the eventful and peculiar year of 2002. And with the likelihood of war imminent, the resurrection of Sun Ra’s interstellar soul may be Yo La Tengo’s greatest gift to us this holiday season.

By John Yandrasits

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